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Man on the go: Colorful Kunkel keeps the wheels turning on both bus and bike

Dan Kunkel, a Round Lake resident since 1992, worked in education for 36 years and now, in his retirement, works as a driver for Reading Bus Lines. (RYAN MCGAUGHEY/DAILY GLOBE)

ROUND LAKE -- Whether on a bike or bus, Dan Kunkel spends the bulk of his time just spinning his wheels.

But don't think that means he isn't getting anywhere, even though he's now officially retired from his 36-year career as an educator.

"I love going places, seeing things and hauling different people," expressed Kunkel of his post-retirement job as a driver for Reading Bus Lines.

That's a given, as the animated but disciplined Kunkel, who jokingly refers to his life as a "hodge-podge," has spent about the past two and a half years shuttling people all over the United States.

"It's been a joy to do this, partly because by driving a bus, I haven't lost touch with kids," revealed Kunkel, a Round Lake resident since 1992.

"There are two groups I've driven that are very special to me. One is a Lutheran church youth group out of Milford, Iowa. I've taken them on a few mission trips, including to the northern Cheyenne reservation in Montana and last year to Denver.

"I've also been impressed with the students and teachers from a St. Paul Montessori charter school. Those teachers really teach by example and model the behavior they expect of their students. The kids knew what to do and did it without complaining; they were so impressive."

Kunkel knows perfectly well how to keep to himself, if that's what his passengers desire, but with a little encouragement, he freely shares his opinions and gregarious personality.

"Once you get behind, you never catch up," Kunkel intoned, commenting on his penchant for punctuality--an excellent quality in a bus driver. "It's a good trait for the jobs I've held. I just always try to be on time, and I can't think of anytime I thought it was all right not to be on time."

Perhaps Kunkel's experience in the Navy, which he joined straight out of high school in 1964, had some bearing on that.

"I went to the Navy's school of music -- that was my parents' idea, to try to avoid Vietnam," smiled Kunkel. "They didn't billet any musicians to Vietnam that I know of."

So the naturally musical Kunkel, a native of Mound City in northwest Missouri, served in the Navy through 1967, playing trumpet in a Navy band and spending most of his time in East Coast locations, including Norfolk, Va., and New York.

Thereafter, Kunkel returned to Missouri, where he was an instrumental music major at Northwest Missouri State University.

"I am a baritone and can sing tenor, too, if I don't sing it for very long," laughed Kunkel, who later became certified in vocal instruction and earned a master's degree in educational administration at Mankato State University.

He also holds a six-year certificate --"that's a specialist's degree without the paper," Kunkel good-naturedly explained.

As part of his undergraduate training, "I even had to take cello lessons," Kunkel recalled. "They were very enjoyable, and I've taught a lot of string concepts over the years, but my major instrument was trumpet.

"I also enjoy trombone and saxophone, but I was terrible on the woodwinds," Kunkel insisted. "I never could get the flute."

During his teaching career, Kunkel spent time in Missouri, Iowa and Minnesota, where he ended his educator years as a principal in Truman.

Kunkel, now 64, took a year off to relax, but for a restless guy, sitting around mowing the lawn and doing laundry just wasn't enough.

"When I'm home, I rest a lot, and I can watch TV, but it's hard for me to just sit and watch it," said Kunkel while admitting he rides his stationary bike whenever he is viewing.

Indeed, bicycle riding is another passion of Kunkel's; before retiring, he participated seven times in the RAGBRAI (the Register's Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa, a seven-day cycle ride) event; his last RAGBRAI ride was in 2007.

"I got too busy when I retired to ride in it anymore," teased Kunkel.

But that doesn't mean Kunkel only bikes in front of his television set now; whenever the weather is favorable, and if there's room for him to pack his bike, Kunkel brings his cycling gear along on bus trips he's driving for and, when he has time, cycles to see the scenery.

"There's not always as much down time as you'd think for a bus driver," Kunkel divulged.

In between bus trips, Kunkel tries to find time to spend with his wife, Pam, whom he married in 1977, and their son and grandson.

"She has worked for United Prairie Bank for several years, and when an opportunity for advancement came up, she took it, even though she now works at their Mankato headquarters," noted Kunkel of his wife.

"Pam is a cancer survivor. She had uterine cancer over three years ago, had the whole nine yards of treatment, and it's not ideal for her job to be so far from Round Lake, but it works out."

The couple's son, Zebedee ("Zeb"), was, Kunkel said, a "blessed addition" to the family. Zeb attended Mankato State University and now lives in St. Paul; according to his father, he loves hockey and named his own son, Nolan, after a hockey player.

"Zeb is a huge Minnesota Wild and Maverick hockey fan," confirmed Kunkel.

Kunkel continues to rack up miles, sights and experiences as he drives passengers around the country on Reading Bus Lines' coaches. The ever-colorful Kunkel says his journeys have led him to draw at least one conclusion about his own life.

"When I die, I want to be in Chattanooga," asserted Kunkel. "I've been to Chattanooga a couple of times, and it's gorgeous down there."